Director: Clark Gregg
Obviously, even without reading Choke, having seen and appreciated David Fincher’s cinematic adaptation of Fight Club, I was familiar with the twisted mind of Generation X’s own version of the Burroughs and Ginsberg era beat generation led by author Chuck Palahniuk (and “co-chaired” by authors like Bret Easton Ellis). Yet, within the first five minutes of the feature filmmaking debut of actor turned writer/director Clark Gregg (The New Adventures of Old Christine), I felt my eyes wandering over towards the exit sign. Still, I wasn’t sure why this was the case but the fact that the screening was held at ten in the morning may have had something to do with it as—when one is barely functional and suddenly confronted with the exploits of a sex addict-- it comes as rather a rude awakening so early in the morning.
And soon, I recalled the tagline of this year’s exploitative shocker Funny Games which promised, “You Must Admit, You Brought This On Yourself.” So, having never wanted to be known as a quitter I stayed put, halfway out of morbid curiosity and halfway out of loyalty to my gender as the only female critic in the theatre, and I’ll be damned if after the initial shock wore off, I was surprised to discover that Gregg’s film is much, much better than the tawdry Red Band trailers would have you believe.
Additionally it’s augmented by David Gordon Green’s longtime cinematographer Tim Orr’s inventive photography and a wonderful impressionistic soundtrack of indie, alternative and offbeat rock tracks that get us further inside of Palahniuk’s universe in a digital only soundtrack release scheduled by ATO Records.
Winner of the Special Jury Prize for its remarkable ensemble cast and nominated for Sundance’s Grand Jury Prize for Gregg, Choke chronicles Sam Rockwell’s Victor Mancini, a sex addicted con artist who by day works as a historical re-enactor at a tourist trap as “the backbone of Colonial America,” along with his best friend and fellow addict Denny (Brad William Henke) and their far-too-serious boss, played amusingly by Gregg himself. Describing his profession as something like being marooned on Gilligan’s Island meets Groundhog Day in hell, Gregg manages to insert some much needed humor and creativity into what otherwise could have been a far too excruciatingly uncomfortable film.
“Thy Purse Shall Suffer.”
When Mancini isn’t satisfying his depraved lascivious urges with whatever willing participant he can find along “the circuit,” total strangers or the fellow addict in Sexaholics Anonymous whom he’s sponsoring, he spends his evenings looking for love and a way to pay the bills by deliberately choking on entrees to be saved by wealthy strangers who lavish checks on him, high on their newfound heroism.
“You Can’t Fool People Into Loving You.”
Although admittedly he’s a rather loathsome main character with whom anyone would want to follow for the length of even Gregg’s brief, fast-paced film, Rockwell adds surprising depth and empathy to his characterization and reminds us yet again why he’s one of the most criminally underrated actors of his generation in a performance that would be Oscar worthy if it wasn’t so taboo. Yet, Victor’s goal for monetary compensation isn’t solely for his own gain but rather selfless as he struggles to pay the lofty bills for his dementia ridden, elderly mother, Ida (Anjelica Huston), who often mistakes him for her lawyer Fred in his routine visits to her private care facility.
And when one night, his mother mumbles something about the true identity of Victor’s unknown father, Victor becomes dead-set on discovering the long lost secret, while trying to restore his mother back to health along with her beautiful, unorthodox, new physician, Dr. Paige Marshall (Kelly Macdonald). However, when his feelings for Paige grow from simple initial lust to something deeper, Victor realizes that his previous outlet of finding fleeting satisfaction with random citizens is jeopardized. Additionally, he begins to recall the origins of both his addiction and first attempt to “choke” his way out of a bad situation as the film makes great use of humanistic flashbacks to illustrate Victor’s troubled and tragic childhood with the mentally unstable Ida.
And indeed, once you get past the overwhelming shock of the film’s opening which finds us introduced to Victor’s group, seemingly led by Joel Grey as our main character explains that these people are “the reason emergency rooms have special tools,” we realize that instead of something merely titillating or celebratory as some of the ads seemed to indicate (view the Green Band trailer), Choke illustrates the truly depressing, socially unappealing, depraved, and tragic nature of the affliction.
Incidentally, I think the tone and completed product will be quite a surprise to those just strolling in—whether like me with great caution or like some of my male colleagues who seemed eager to see something sexually stimulating. I was especially awestruck by a prominent critic (who shall remain nameless) who chose thematically obvious surface comparisons to sex-obsessed Woody Allen and juvenile humor of Judd Apatow for his summation of why he disliked Choke. For the record, there was nothing remotely Allen or Apatow-like about it and I doubt those two filmmakers even entered Gregg’s mind during the entire filmmaking process since the entirety of the film seems wholly fitting to the same nihilistic, chaotic, questioning world Fincher acquainted us with in his take on Palahniuk’s Fight Club. And while we do indeed see everything (so much that after awhile, we’re numb to the bizarre acts being performed), it’s all handled in an unapologetic, graphic way devoid of any real human connection to illustrate just how unappealing it would be to have such an addiction in the fist place which is precisely the right approach.
It takes a true natural talent like Gregg’s and especially Rockwell’s to make us care about characters and situations that would normally make us run in real life and it shows the level of trust the rest of the cast (including Macdonald and Huston) must have had in newcomer Gregg in the first place. And although it’s a tad pretentious, a bit too over-the-top in the last act, and I’m entirely sure I buy the slightly protracted and convenient conclusion wholeheartedly, I must admit to being utterly surprised by how much there was to admire about Choke, even though at first I must confess, I feared that the film was going to make me—instead of Victor—choke in disgust.